Making SAFRA Count

Thursday, January 28, 2010
The end of last year was a busy time for me as I waited out the birth of my daughter who decided to spend an extra 10 days lounging in utero before emerging into the Wisconsin winter. I was so focused on strategies to promote her exit (sidenote: talk about an area in need of better research-give gobs of data on live births for hundreds of years, docs still refuse to hazard a prediction of labor occurring on any given night!), I virtually shut out the world of higher education policy. Imagine!

Thankfully, others were hard at work around and over the holidays, thinking about ways to make sure that the substantial, timely, and hard-won investment which will (fingers crossed) soon come to higher education via the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA) are most effective. Evidence of that work is contained in a December Lumina Foundation memorandum to the U.S. Department of Education, awkwardly (but accurately) titled "Structuring the Distribution of New Federal Higher Education Program Funding to Assure Maximum Effectiveness."

The memo gets it (mostly) right. There's great potential for this money to count, but also a real possibility it will do next to nothing if mismanaged. For example, if definitions of key terms like "college completion" are vague, and standards for "rigorous" research evidence ambiguous, then funds will likely go to continuing business as usual-for example, supporting programs that purport to increase college access while doing little to change rates of success-leading some to ask, access to what?

To avoid this the Department of Education needs a distribution system based first and foremost on one principle: keep it simple. It should make states define college completion and disseminate that definition-then stick to it. It's easiest to tell if plans are straightforward and consistent with intended principles if prospective grantees are forced to explain their ideas in a concise manner. Lumina gets this, and its team recommends a two-step process that requires a concept paper in advance of a full proposal.

So the good news is that this Lumina paper hits many of the key issues and makes some solid recommendations. That said, its authors missed an opportunity to address one important issue. The section titled, "How will the U.S. Department of Education know if these investments are actually helping to meet the President's goal?" is essential. It goes to the heart of one major goal of SAFRA-to increase the body of knowledge about what works in promoting college completion, and therefore the field's capacity to create lasting change.

As I recommended to ED's Bob Shireman early last year, we can do higher education a great service by holding a high bar for what constitutes research on college completion. Too often research in higher education hypothesizes that policies or practices advance desired outcomes, but utilizes insufficient methods to establish causal linkages between the two. As a result, we often don't know whether the results we see can be directly attributed to the new practice or investment.

In this case, ED should define "research" and "researchers" and "evidence," ideally in ways that are consistent with current practices at the Institute for Education Sciences; and require states to use those definitions. There should be a prescriptive process for selecting researchers (so as to make sure that truly independent evaluations are conducted) and proposals that allow for sustained research should be prioritized (e.g. those that leverage supportive foundation funding to continue the work to assess mid and long-range outcomes). I'd also like to see ED involved in increasing the capacity of researchers to do this kind of work, since it's far from clear how the demand for new work can be met by the current supply of higher education researchers. Maybe an IES pre- and/or post-doc training program targeted to postsecondary education?

Sure, this would require setting aside sufficient funds for the research side of the initiatives-but absent that investment, we'll likely never know whether the money spent on SAFRA-funded programs and policies had any real effect. That would, of course, be business as usual-precisely what we must avoid if we want to make this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity really count.